Monday, October 17, 2011

Cotton: The Long and Short of It

Mammy's little baby loves shot'nin', short'nin',

Mammy's little baby loves short'nin' bread...

If those lyrics don't immediately bring the song to mind, you can here a version here. It's one of the first songs I learned to play on the piano many, many moons ago.

Most people believe this to be a song sung by slaves on the plantation, but it was actually first published with the lyrics I mention above in 1915.  It is considered to be a folk song.
James Whitcomb Riley is credited with creating an even earlier version in 1900.

Shortening Bread is a  wonderful mixture of cornmeal, flour, hot water, eggs, baking powder, milk and shortening and instead of baking it you serve it fried.   Shortening is used to make various types of pastry and used for frying foods.  One of my favorite uses that I try to stay away from as much as possible is frosting such as the type of frosting on wedding cakes.

Oh my!   What a wicked little pleasure that stuff is....

Did you know shortening and cotton are connected?

Yes, they are...really.

Cotton begins showing up in my curriculum early on when we discuss the British Colonies - the Southern Colonies in particular - as we examine the plantation system and look at the various crops that were raised in the fields of Georgia and other southern colonies.

Around the 1840s and 1850s, the South heads to the front of the curriculum again as we explore the Missiouri Compromise and other events leading up to the Civil War.

Sometimes the continued importance of cotton as a staple in the southern economy is missed.  Oh sure, students are taught cotton was king in the south, but I think we often help students overlook how integral the cotton crop was to the economy before the Civil War and afterwards by ending the cotton conversation after the war has been fought as we launch into Reconstruction.

The afterwards part is where I think the mark is missed in many classrooms.  Cotton remained king in the South even after the Civil War - even after the emancipation of the slaves.  For example, in 1919 in Laurens County, Georgia they ginned 37,323 bales of cotton which ended up weighing 18.7 million pounds.  In 1912, the amount increased to 30 million pounds of cotton.

No, cotton didn't go away at all.   Once cotton is ginned, and the fluffy white fibers are separated from the seeds the cotton farmer ends up with a lot of seeds, too. 

The cotton gin owners were drowning in seeds and figured there had to be some uses of them...uses that might make a few extra dollars.   They were right, of course.

The hull from a cottonseed can be fed to animals for roughage.  Ground cottonseeds can be used for fertilizer, but they can also be crushed for cottonseed oil.  30 million pounds of cotton has the potential to produce tons of seeds and gallons of cottonseed oil.

Crude cottonseed oil is dark red in color and has a very distasteful flavor and odor, but several industrious people decided there had to be a use for the oil - there had to be a way to work around the color, flavor, and odor, and had to be taken since left untreated cottonseed oil could become a paralytic pesticide.

Enter The Southern Oil Company formed in 1887 who took on the cottonseed oil in order to create viable consumer products. There had to be a way to make cottonseed oil more appetizing.   They hired David  Wesson, a food chemist who was a graduate as well as faculty member at MIT.  It too Doc Wesson, as he was fondly called, 16 years to develop the process to deodorize cottonseed oil. 

The process Doc Wesson finally hit upon involved a high-temperature vacuum process that became known as the Wesson Process.

If you haven't guessed by now...the resulting product of course, was Wesson Oil currently owned by ConAgra, but when it first hit the market Wesson Oil was created by The Southern Oil Company.

Several forms of Wesson Oil exist today, but in the earliest days of Wesson Oil was made from cottonseed oil only. 

The company also wanted to develop a product that would be an alternative to hog lard.  Doc Wesson used the process of hydrogenation with the cottonseed oil and created the product they marketed as Snowdrift Shortening.

Hydrogenation involves adding a little hydrogen to help make a solid fat from the liquid oil and then it is chilled.

But the marketing department at The Southern Oil Company had a problem.  Cooks were used to using hog fat and were fairly stubborn regarding changing to an all vegetable shortening. 

Housewives across America had to be persuaded to use products like Snowdrift.  Hence the need for magazine ads posing as articles such as this one that says at one point, "Snowdrift is made entirely of this pure vegetable oil - nothing else - hardened into a creamy looking fat by hydrogenating, because - frankly - the women of this country didn't want to cook with liquid fat, but wanted it to be white and solid and look like the old fashioned hog fat they were accustomed to."

Snowdrift was advertised all over the South. One such outdoor advertisement still exist including this one in Douglasville, Georgia where I happen to live.

Yes, the Wesson Process enabled shortening to be made as well as other products such as mayonnaise, margarine, and salad dressing.

The 50th anniversary of Snowdrift was celebrated in 1951.   At that time the makers of Wesson Oil stated, "It is a story of how the crushing and refining industry made many products from cottonseed, once considered a useless part of the cotton industry, except for planting.   It is a story of a development that brought more income to the farmer of the south."

Don't shortchange students regarding the life of cotton in the South.   It continued to be a major crop that held an important role in the South on into the New South Era and the rise of the cotton mill economy.

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